Who Discovered the North Pole?

A century ago, explorer Robert Peary earned fame for discovering the North Pole, but did Frederick Cook get there first?

Frederick Cook and Robert Peary both claimed they discovered the North Pole. (AGIP / Rue des Archives / The Granger Collection, New York)
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The next day, in Henson's account, Peary took a navigational sight with his sextant, though he did not tell Henson the result; Peary put a diagonal strip of the flag, together with a note, in an empty tin and buried it in the ice. Then they turned toward home.

While Peary made his way south, Cook was recovering his strength at Annoatok. Having befriended Whitney, he told him about his trip to the pole but asked that he say nothing until Cook could make his own announcement. With no scheduled ship traffic so far north, Cook planned to sledge 700 miles south to the Danish trading post of Upernavik, catch a ship to Copenhagen and another to New York City. He had no illusions about the difficulties involved—the sledge trip would involve climbing mountains and glaciers and crossing sections of open water when the ice was in motion—but he declined Whitney's offer of passage on a chartered vessel due at summer's end to take the sportsman home to New York. Cook thought his route would be faster.

Etukishook and Ahwelah had returned to their village just south of Annoatok, so Cook enlisted two other natives to accompany him. The day before they were to leave, one of the two got sick, which meant that Cook would have to leave a sledge behind. Whitney suggested that he also leave behind anything not essential for his trip, promising to deliver the abandoned possessions to Cook in New York. Cook agreed.

In addition to meteorological data and ethnological collections, Cook boxed up his expedition records, except for his diary, and his instruments, including his sextant, compass, barometer and thermometer. He wouldn't be needing them because he would be following the coastline south. Leaving three trunk-size boxes with Whitney, Cook left Annoatok the third week of April 1909 and arrived a month later at Upernavik, where he told Danish officals of his conquest of the pole.

It was not until early August that a ship bound for Copenhagen, the Hans Egede, docked in Upernavik. For the three weeks it took to cross the North Atlantic, Cook entertained passengers and crew alike with spellbinding accounts of his expedition. The ship's captain, who understood the news value of Cook's claim, suggested he get word of it out. So on September 1, 1909, the Hans Egede made an unscheduled stop at Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands. At the town's telegraph station, Cook wired the New York Herald, which had covered explorers and their exploits since Stanley encountered Livingstone in Africa 30 years earlier. "Reached North Pole April 21, 1908," Cook began. He explained that he would leave an exclusive 2,000-word story for the newspaper with the Danish consul at Lerwick. The next day, the Herald ran Cook's story under its "Discovered by Dr. Frederick A. Cook" headline.

In Copenhagen, Cook was received by King Frederick. In gratitude for the Danes' hospitality, Cook promised in the king's presence that he would send his polar records to geography experts at the University of Copenhagen for their examination. "I offer my observations to science," he said.

While Cook was steaming for Copenhagen, Harry Whitney waited in vain for his chartered vessel to arrive. Not until August would another ship stop in northern Greenland: the Roosevelt, built for Peary by his sponsors and named after Theodore Roosevelt. On board, Peary was returning from his own polar expedition, although up to that point he had told no one—not even the ship's crew—that he had reached the North Pole. Nor did he seem to be in any hurry to do so; the Roosevelt had been making a leisurely journey, stopping to hunt walrus in Smith Sound.

In Annoatok, Peary's men heard from natives that Cook and two natives had made it to the pole the previous year. Peary immediately queried Whitney, who said he knew only Cook had returned safely from a trip to the Far North. Peary then ordered Cook's two companions, Etukishook and Ahwelah, brought to his ship for questioning. Arctic natives of the day had no knowledge of latitude and longitude, and they did not use maps; they testified about distances only in relation to the number of days traveled. In a later interview with a reporter, Whitney, who unlike Peary was fluent in the natives' dialect, would say the two told him they had been confused by the white men's questions and did not understand the papers on which they were instructed to make marks.

Whitney accepted Peary's offer to leave Greenland on the Roosevelt. Whitney later told the New York Herald that a line of natives toted his possessions aboard under Peary's watchful gaze.

"Have you anything belonging to Dr. Cook?" Whitney told the newspaper Peary asked him.

Whitney answered that he had Cook's instruments and his records from his journey.


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